If you review the thousands of forgotten “NBA preview” articles now buried beneath five months of newer content, it’s hard to find many kind words about the Phoenix Suns. Most writers agreed they were supposed to suck. On purpose. Back then, the Suns narrative was formed around intentional failure, dumping veteran salary, accruing draft picks, and “rebuilding” — whatever that means. Phoenix was supposed to be very bad this season, but its wheeling and dealing just might help it construct a winning roster down the road.
A funny thing happened on the way to the 2014 NBA lottery: 60 games into the season, the Suns are 10 games over .500 and just 1.5 games behind Golden State for sixth place in the mighty Western Conference. Night in and night out, the Suns’ roster of relatively anonymous players is tormenting guys with bloated Q scores and giant shoe contracts. In a sense, they are the breakthrough indie act of the NBA. (Hi, Axl! Where’s Axl?)
Phoenix’s best player is Goran Dragic, a 27-year-old point guard from Ljubljana, Slovenia. He’s a six-year veteran who has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Phoenix and Houston. He didn’t exactly impress NBA analysts during his first few years in the league; in fact, John Hollinger once claimed Dragic was “arguably the worst player in the NBA.”
Nobody will ever say that again. Dragic’s ascendance hasn’t been rapid, but it has been remarkable. Since his rookie season, his game has evolved steadily. Looking at his shot locations over time shows how far he’s come in his five-plus years in the league.
I spoke to Dragic this week about his development as a player and what’s working now that hasn’t really clicked in the past.
“When I came to the league, I was kind of the lost kid from Europe. I had come from a different culture and a different kind of basketball, so it took some time to adjust,” Dragic said. “Now, I know how the league works and I’m just more comfortable. I worked hard to develop my game, and it’s easier for me.”
This season Dragic has become one of the most effective guards in the league. It’s ridiculous that he wasn’t an All-Star. Of the 20 NBA players scoring 20 or more points per game, only five are making half of their shots: Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, and Dragic.
Dragic has become freakishly effective near the hoop. He is making 62 percent of his shots inside eight feet. Of 85 players who have attempted at least 250 shots from that distance this season, Dragic ranks 12th in efficiency.
That’s especially impressive considering he is only 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds.
How is Dragic so effective near the hoop? He gets easy buckets in transition, and he’s become a master attacker off picks in half-court sets. One of the Suns’ key strategies is to let their duo of speedy point guards simply outrace the opponent down the floor in transition, and between Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, they are really good at executing that. As a result, they lead the NBA in fast-break points.
This isn’t just Seven Seconds or Less basketball. The Suns have also quickly become one of the best pick-and-roll acts in the game. Recent player-tracking data analytics suggest that the Dragic–Channing Frye pairing is the most efficient pick-and-roll tandem in the league. According to the data, the Suns are averaging a ridiculous 1.3 points per possession on the 392 Dragic-Frye pick-and-rolls this season.
People around the league have noticed:
Dragic is quick to point out that the return of Frye — the team’s most vital spacing agent — has been central to Phoenix’s dramatic offensive improvements. “Last year he had some heart problems and couldn’t play with us, so when I played pick-and-roll I didn’t have that space guy,” he says. “This year, when we play pick-and-roll, Channing stretches the floor so I have room to operate; I can get inside the paint and make other plays for him and everybody else. He just gives us that spacing, and especially for me and Eric he makes things much easier because nobody can rotate from him.”
Nobody can rotate away from Frye; there are very few bigs in the league who can shoot from distance as well as he can.
Frye says the keys to their pick-and-roll success are quick recognition and smart decisions to create defensive stresses.
“Goran is an extremely prolific scorer and for me it’s about establishing that I’m going to set a good screen every single time and try to get my guy to get off Goran’s body,” Frye said. “If Goran’s guy goes under, it’s Goran’s job to be able to shoot that shot and my job to give him the space to shoot it in. If my guy stays on Goran, it’s my job to create space for myself to get an open shot. You know, I’ve got to assess this within milliseconds, but we’ve been good at it. Goran’s been aggressive and smart, while I’ve been pretty good at hitting the shots that I’ve been given and trying to make the right decisions.”
Frye takes more 3s than 2s, and his ability to drain those 3s is worth far more than just the handful of points that directly result from those baskets. It’s a constant threat that demands defensive attention and changes the defensive tactics in a way that opens up the interior for his attacking teammates. Frye’s proficient above-the-break shot is arguably the most important in the whole offense, and it obviously wasn’t there last year.
But this season, the Suns run a terrifying pick-and-pop that results in Frye threatening near the top of the arc and, as he says, puts the defense in a horrible predicament:
“If you have penetrators like Goran there’s no way the defense can stop the ball and get back to the shooter in time, especially with me because I’m almost 7 feet tall and have a pretty quick release,” Frye said. “It’s just a matter of who is doing what on the defense, and our offense making the decision from there.”
Frye has a gravitational pull that forces bigs away from the rim, creating attacking corridors for Dragic, who excels at “turning the corner,” attacking the basket, and making plays. In turn, Dragic’s attacking abilities create wide-open looks for Frye or other perimeter shooters. This symbiosis is the heart of the Suns’ offensive ecosystem, and it is by no means an accident.
Before the season, it was clear that Jeff Hornacek and the coaching staff really examined the roster and engineered schemes accordingly. Instead of being paralyzed by a “redundancy” at point guard, they created ways to make that a unique strength. Relative to the celebrity power of other teams, this team is less impressive, yet somehow the on-court cohesion far exceeds the sum of the parts. Now they feel like they can beat anybody in the league.